The Importance of a WOW Book in an Overcrowded Marketplace

photo by alexkess


I want to implore you to remember to dedicate at least as much effort, if not more, to craft than you did before you started taking on so many of the business functions in the industry. Simply never lose sight of the fact that readers expect you to bring your A-game consistently, and they have more incentive than ever to walk away if you disappoint them.” – Lou Aronica, Publisher, Fiction Studio,  in his last letter as President, to the membership of Novelists, Inc.

Estimates are that in 2012 over 1.5 million books will have been published (About 20% of them coming from traditional houses).  And thanks to the explosion of self-publishing, 2013 could see double that number; as many as 3 million books might grace our virtual bookstores next year! That means we are going to be awash in covers and titles, plot descriptions and characters. That means we are going to be pushing harder than ever to break through the crowded marketplace and doing it without any new methods or magic.

It means that now more than ever we can’t be writing just another book. We can’t be  rushing through a draft.

There are those who say the way to win the game is to write fast and furious, and fill up the virtual shelves with as many books carrying your name on the spine as possible.  In the past there’s been some proof that it was a viable strategy.

But there’s more proof that the future isn’t about endless quantity.

With so many millions of titles available, the books that will get talked about are the books that make readers talk about them. Now is not the time to try and write two okay books a year as opposed to one really gangbuster book in the next 12 or 18 or 24 months.

I’m not really talking about good vs. bad books. Not talking about quiet vs. noisy books.  I’m talking about books that whatever their genre or sensibility are exceptional. If it’s a romance or mystery or literary fiction it has to stand out. Way out.

Not even the few hundred branded authors with built-in fan bases are exempt.

The playing field isn’t level; it’s so overcrowded we can’t see it. Whether we are writing about serial killers or heroines who engage in bondage or National Book Award fiction we need to be writing that “WOW” book.  That book that makes readers go “Oooo.”

We need to write books that publicists and marketers and booksellers and book club leaders and librarians and readers can get excited about. That have something about them that makes them stand out. That makes them shine.

PR and marketing doesn’t sell books. It gets attention for them. It sends readers to bookstores and websites to read a few pages. We need to make sure those pages grab the reader with talons and won’t let him or her go.

What do you think constitutes a WOW read? How did you find your last one? Was it hard to find it? How many people did you tell?


About M.J. Rose

M.J. Rose is the international and NYT's bestselling author of several novels and two non-fiction books on marketing. In 2005 she founded the first marketing company for authors, AuthorBuzz, and is the co-founder of BookTrib and Peroozal. She's a founding member of ITW.


  1. says

    I couldn’t agree more. Looking at the market today and contemplating tossing another pebble into the ocean that it is, I know that pebble has to have the impact of a boulder. The only way to make that happen is to make it great. I think quantity only helps once you get noticed in some way. And to get noticed at all requires a level of quality that will earn it.

  2. says

    I’m with you all the way. I spent five years on my first published novel and have three other working drafts going, none of which are good enough for publication. I refuse to publish a book that is not my best work and has not gone through independent, professional editing. As for wow books, it all starts with complex characters who appeal to me on an emotional level. A good story helps, too. Thanks for a thought-provoking post.

  3. says

    I think it’s like the Porn definition – you know it when you read it!

    The hard part is, what is WOW for me, might not be for you.

    But in a way, that’s the great part too!

  4. says

    This post cuts right through all the “noise” of rushing – to write the book, to get it out there, to market it etc then hurry and start the whole thing all over again. It’s getting harder to tune it all out, but posts like this are a great reminder to return to what is ultimately the most important factor – the craft.

    For me, a WOW book is any book that makes me want my husband to read it, too, to review it on my blog, or to give it as a gift.

  5. says

    Point very well taken. Writing an “eh” book just isn’t an option in a flooded market. Simple economics of supply and demand.

    What makes a “wow” book may depend on your preference. I just visited Goodreads to check out what my friends are reading. One friend reads anything with a spiritual (Christian) message. Other friends love a good, formula romance that makes them sigh at the end. Me? I read best-seller fiction trying to learn the secret of good story-telling. But I love a good non-fiction book that takes me into another world.

    Bottom line– for me, a “WOW” book, no matter the genre or preference, must engage a reader– good writing, but even better story-telling skills, non-fiction or fiction.

  6. says

    Seems like all the WOW novels I’ve read have come from the urging of friends who are voracious readers. But my last WOW book, a nonfiction title, came from front table placement at my local independent bookstore: “Detroit City Is the Place to Be” by Mark Binelli.

  7. says

    Great Post! I have to admit, I’ve had a hard time finding a great book lately. Even amidst the latest bestsellers. I recently had a friend give me her husband’s old copies of J.R.R Tolkien’s The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings paperbacks. I was surprised to see the copyright date from 1937, and reading them, I can see why. So far The Hobbit is great. That’s the kind of book I want to find again, that’s the kind of book I want to write.

  8. says

    Thanks for the not so gentle reminder that we are in this to write WOW. I have been told over the past year that if just write from my heart, people will respond. But what does that mean? How do you find that heart space when bogged down by all of the what, where, why’s and how’s of the craft? For me, it comes and goes. Slow down. But don’t slow down so much that there are now SIX million books by the time you are done?

  9. Robin Yaklin says

    That’s a post right of the middle of my mind. These statistics are either paralyzingly or empowering and mean you’ve got to make a decision–fast or steady with strength. That’s not to say fast is not also strong. I just know I’m not in the both/and category. Strong is not an easy choice when others talk about producing in less than 2, nay,1 year. I’ve read a few of those speedy authors and have been impressed at what they accomplished, but thought they still needed work and would have produced much better work if they kept at the revision.

  10. says

    This post catches me at the perfect time, as I pick my way through the first draft of my Nano book! I feel like it’s a good one with the potential to be really great. I hope I’m up to the task! This is great encouragement to simply take my time with it. Thank you!

  11. says

    I usually get my WOW reads recommended to me by my 17 year old daughter. “North of Beautiful was one such book.”

    When I go to the bookstore, the choices are overwhelming. I will admit to picking up a book because the cover is dynamic, unique or just simply beautiful. When the story matches my expectation based on the cover, I’m happy.

  12. says

    I am sometimes frustrated by just how many mediocre books are out there (although I also hasten to remind myself that what I find mediocre may be a WOW book for someone else, and vice versa).
    Ultimately, as a writer, all you can do is write the best you possibly can. The result (and whether it is considered a WOW or a MOW – middle of the way – book) is out of your hands, and firmly in your readers’ hands.

  13. says

    M.J., what can I say? You express my whole philosophy of this business: What will make you successful isn’t your agent, editor, deal, cover, blurbs, self-promo or category…it’s your storytelling.

    I’m not sure I agree, though, with the comments that say WOW is in the eye of the beholder. Sure, some readers will never enjoy dinosaurs on the rampage or the latest wounded daughter. Light farce or heavy drama will always turn off some readers.

    But my studies of successful fiction show that the elements and techniques that create high impact in a story have nothing to do with category, style, subject matter or message. What we glibly call great writing is a set of techniques (a large set) that are the same across the board.

    WOW isn’t luck, timing or a shrewd choice of story. It’s sweat, fire, and a commitment to dig deeper, work harder and say more than the other 1.5 million. The methods aren’t secret, it’s just their application that’s rare.

    Thanks, M.J.

  14. Marilyn Slagel says

    Timely post for me. I.Am.Overwhelmed! I’m ashamed to say my WIP is on the back burner this month due to promoting my recently released debut novella. There is so much to do after the book is written.

    Do I sound scattered? It is because I am! Totally bonkers over all the things involved in actually being a published author. I love it, but it is overwhelming at times.

    Storytelling is paramount for me – the rest of it is just the means to an end, getting readers who will love my style of storytelling.

    This articles I read here have helped me tremendously. Thanks so much.

  15. says

    There are some books that make me say, “WOW.” Those are the ones I write reviews on Amazon about. Sadly there are a lot of mediocre books out there. I’m not so sure that self-publishing is really the friend of readers. One that wowed me this year is the book, “Wool.” It is a mini series on Amazon, but I think it’s going to be made into print. The last time I looked, the first book in the series was free on Amazon. The ending surprised me and I’ve encouraged all the Kindle owners I know to check it out.

    Have a blessed day.

  16. says

    Oh wow, what a great post. I do think there is an ideal vector each writer needs to find that is one part productivity (speed of output) two parts “wow” factor (which comes from passion for the story plus craft, craft, craft) and one part fearlessness (letting go, pulling the cord, making the jump, getting out there).

    All of those things need to be working, IMO, for a successful career in this crazy game.

  17. says

    Make sense.

    I like action packed fantasy fiction with a twist in the story, and has lots of mountains and trees. I normally find them by word of mouth or while browsing the net. I don’t tell much people though because I don’t know much people who likes to read fantasy fiction.

  18. says

    Less is more. Chose your words wisely. Especially the first few chapters–if I hit an infodump, I’m out. It is not easy or quick, but WOW is possible.

    My favorites take me and a protagonist with whom I identify on a magical, and profound journey. My favorite nonfiction espands my spirit and soul.

  19. says

    One of my wow reads of the year was CODE NAME VERITY. I found out about it through a young woman who works at my local indie. She was so enthusiastic, I requested it at the library that day. I’ve gone on to recommend it, discuss it, generally gush over it.

  20. says

    As a debut author with a title arriving in January 2014, just your stock photo makes me nervous, MJ—and that’s before hearing your numbers!
    I know I am becoming inured to the marketing onslaught myself. But for me, a WOW book is one where the very moment I’m finished I start it all again, this time trying to figure out how the heck the author accomplished that amazing feat. I’ll recommend it to my book club so I have to read it again and delve more deeply and see it from more perspectives. I will stand in bookstores and recommend it to shoppers simply because we’re both standing in front of it, because the story made a difference to me and I hope it does for them, as well. That kind of impassioned PR cannot be bought, and it’s what I seek.

  21. says

    As a reader, I look for exciting ideas — whether in fiction or nonfiction — and of course, equally intriguing word choices and skillful use of voice.

  22. says

    MJ, Great post as usual. I’d say for me the WOW comes from voice. Even if the idea itself is one I’ve perhaps heard before, if the voice is really engaging – and keeps me turning the page – then I’ll read it. Unfortunately most non-wow books don’t get read because I give up on them to get to what is hopefully the wow book next in my pile.

    Craft is more important than ever! AMEN!

  23. says

    Thanks, M.J. I love posts like this. We need every professional writer out there to be talking about quality, not quantity.

    I feel like I did my job. I wrote the best southern gothic novel I was capable of writing and it (The Secret Sense of Wildflower) received a starred review by Kirkus Reviews and was named one of the Best Books of 2012. But does that mean many readers are finding it? No, not really. It is fighting to try to make it above the fray. But it wouldn’t even have a chance to fight if not for a little bit of luck with Kirkus.

  24. says

    I completely agree with you MJ. Being a unpublished fiction writer, I have yet to share my work with the world. I think what can hurt a book’s chance from really being a great book that will stay with readers through the years is when a writer becomes more concern with the business of writer instead of the art of writing. I believe in focusing on the craft. If you put the craft of writing first, good things will follow.